LONDON, (Reuters) – Large parts of Europe enforced no-fly rulings for a third day on Saturday because of a huge ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano that has caused the worst air travel chaos since the Sept. 11 attacks.
As the cloud spread eastwards, Belarus announced it had closed its airspace and airline officials said Ukraine had closed Kiev and three other airports.
Disruption spread to Asia, where dozens of Europe-bound flights were cancelled and hotels from Beijing to Singapore strained to accommodate thousands of stranded passengers.
“Current forecasts show that the situation is worsening throughout Saturday,” Britain’s air traffic control said in a statement. A ban on air traffic over Britain was extended to at least 2400 GMT, including northern areas where restrictions had been eased.
The plume that floated through the upper atmosphere, where it could wreak havoc on jet engines and airframes, was costing airlines hundreds of millions of dollars and has thrown travel plans into disarray around the world.
Airports in Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands remained closed and flights were set to be grounded in Hungary and parts of Romania. Ireland said its airspace would be closed until 1700 GMT.
Sara Bicoccih, stranded at Frankfurt airport on her way home to Italy from Miami, said: “I am furious and frustrated.”
In Singapore, a major transit point for Europe-bound air traffic, 22 flights were cancelled early on Saturday, Changi Airport spokesman Ivan Tan told Reuters. “We don’t know where to stay,” said German citizen Dirk Kronewald. “Singapore hotels are full.”
The U.S. military had to reroute many flights, including those evacuating the wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said.
The disruption in Europe is the worst since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, when U.S. airspace was closed for three days and European airlines were forced to halt all transatlantic services.
Disruption from the volcanic ash eruption in Iceland was costing airlines more than $200 million a day, air industry group the International Air Transport Association said. But unless the cloud disrupts flights for weeks, threatening factories’ supply chains, economists do not think it will significantly slow Europe’s shaky recovery from recession or affect second-quarter gross domestic product figures. “The overall impact should be very limited even if the problem persists for a day or more,” IHS Global Insight chief UK and European economist Howard Archer said.
Vulcanologists say the ash could cause problems to air traffic for up to six months if the eruption continues. The financial impact on airlines could be significant.
The fallout hit airline shares on Friday with Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Berlin, Air France-KLM, Iberia and Ryanair down between 1.4 and 3.0 percent.
Irish airline Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, said it would cancel flights to and from northern European countries until 1200 GMT on Monday.
Delta Air Lines, the world’s largest airline, cancelled 75 flights between the United States and European Union countries on Friday, Delta spokesman Anthony Black said.
Joe Sultana, head of network operations at European air control agency Eurocontrol, said the situation was unprecedented. Eurocontrol said it was up to each country when flights were resumed, based on whether there was clear air, which depended on wind direction.
The volcano began erupting on Wednesday for the second time in a month from below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, hurling a plume of ash 6 to 11 km (4 to 7 miles) into the atmosphere.
Officials said it was still spewing magma and although the eruption could abate in the coming days, ash would continue drifting into the skies of Europe.
Iceland’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said there was some damage to roads and barriers protecting farms. “There is still an evacuation of around 20 farms, which is 40 to 50 people,” she said, noting this was less than the 800 people who had been evacuated earlier this week.
Volcanic ash contains tiny particles of glass and pulverised rock that can damage jet engines and airframes.
In 1982, a British Airways jumbo jet lost power in all its engines when it flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia, gliding towards the ground before it was able to restart its engines. The incident prompted the aviation industry to rethink the way it prepared for ash clouds.
In addition to travel problems, health officials said the volcanic ash could also prove harmful to those with breathing difficulties.
The air problems have proved a boon for other transport firms. Eurostar trains between Britain and Europe were fully booked and London taxi firm Addison Lee said it had taken requests for journeys to Paris, Milan, Zurich and Salzburg, Austria.